Feeling The Global Heat
December 8, 1997
Trident Missile
April 6, 1998

Justice Hangs Mid-Air

THE office of Mathura district jail Jailor B.S. Mucund is soaked in grubbiness that would make sunlight ill if it filtered through. Of weak illumination, medium size, ancient whitewash, phones that haven’t been working for over two months, and a near permanent stream of visitors, the room has a mildly destabilising effect. In these uninspiring environs, Mucund’s voice booms as he follows a prisoner release drill. Name of father. Name of mother. Offence for which incarcerated. Check mole behind left ear. Check mole on right cheek. Prisoner identity con-firmed. Stamp his left arm. Prisoner can now slip through the big jail gate. That day saw freedom for eight convicts.

In the midst of this surreal routine, Ram Shree’s 18-month-old daughter Pooja suckles on her mother’s breasts while the mother narrates her tale of woes which began almost nine years back in the village of Tingara in UP’s Mahoba district. Occasionally she heaves and sobs when reality hits home that, a Supreme Court stay notwithstanding, her neck could be on the end of Kallu Jalad’s long rope—she could still end up being possibly the first woman to be hanged in post-independence India. Sometimes she tosses the question of Pooja’s future and it hangs in the middle of the dingy room, a chunk of dryness without gravity.

Sometimes she is incoherent in her rustic way. Mostly, a wail of words that almost push you into romantic contemplations of pursuing the role of a heroic defender of truth and justice against overwhelming odds. She also has the tentative body language of someone who wants to convince various mai baaps of her tale but doesn’t know how. Since speech is the bulwark of class distinction, hers is a nebulous Hindi dialect, broadcasting impoverishment, fractured in credibility by the array of facts facing her. In short, the kind of voice destined never to be heard.

In the morning, two women from a feminist organisation have tried to convince themselves of her role in the murders. Her constant refrain has been, “Aur kaun sa sach janna chahaite hain. Jab phansi ke samne khadi hoon to jhoot thodi bolungi? (Which new truth do you want to know? When I am standing in front of my death why will I lie?)” She keeps calling the two women ‘mummy’ and sticks with convincing vehemence to her tale of being framed.

But first, a stampede of ‘facts’ rather than speculative first encounter inferences:
On the morning of October 26, 1989, a few days before Diwali, 73-year-old Panchhi along with his wife Ram Kali, son Manmohan and daughter Ram Shree attacked Bankey Lal and his family with a sickle and axe. Entering the house of Bankey Lal they killed him as well as his mother Halki who rushed to his aid. His wife Pan Kunwar and her five-year-old daughter Sonu ran out of the house to a nearby chabootra where they too were murdered. Ram Khilawan, Bankey Lal’s 12-year-old son, who was at that time having his afternoon meal in the kitchen, escaped the fate that befell his parents and sister by running towards the heart of the village.

The villagers sent Ganshyam chowkidar to lodge an FIR at the nearest police station, seven miles from the village. The chowkidar’s delay of seven hours before he got to file the FIR was an object of great deliberation in the court, but Ganshyam explained: there was a bus strike, he didn’t know how to cycle and the sole tractor available in the village wasn’t lent to him.

Sub-inspector Vijai Singh, who handled the investigation, inspected the site of the murders the next morning, found the dead bodies—a post mortem revealed shock and haemorrhage to be the cause of death—and, interestingly, recovered the sickle and axe used in the murders as well as the bloodstained clothes of the murderers at the pointing of the ‘accused themselves’.

The case hinges on the crucial testimonies of minor Ram Khilawan, and partial eyewitnesses Lakhan Lal and Shambhu Dayal. While Ram Khilawan had witnessed the murder of his father and grandmother, he didn’t see the deaths of his sister and mother. The villagers, on the other hand, had stood at a distance, hearing yells of pain and despair but lacked the courage and initiative for even a joint intervention.

Lakhan Lal, adorned with the exalted status of an independent witness, had seen the accused proceeding to the scene of crime with the weapons in question. He also saw the lethal assaults while he waited to have his beard shaved at the doorsteps of barber Halkai’s shop. Another eyewitness was 80-year-old Shambu Dayal, who heard the cries and rushed to a neighbour’s house from where he saw the series of incidents.

NOW Ram Shree’s version. She had come home for Diwali from her village of Nakra where her husband is a tailor.Her son was then four months old. On the day in question, all the four of her family were ploughing their fields. Says Ram Shree: “My brother Manmohan is 14 pass (a graduate) and he had also come for Diwali. We have been falsely implicated in the case.”

According to Ram Shree, Bankey Lal’s real enmity was with the two sons of his father’s second wife Chandanlya. The issue was a property dispute between the two families. This fact was corroborated by the chowkidar, but didn’t develop beyond a mere suggestion in court. The court instead ruled that in the presence of eye witnesses who were reliable, the absence of motive was immaterial.

Says Ram Shree: “We were forced not to get our own witnesses. Lakhan Lal and Shambhu Dayal asked my father for Rs 10,000 to tell the truth or get framed. My father sold his land but couldn’t arrange for the money as he had to pay the lawyers.”

In a case that further illustrates the fact that caste is hardly a structure or a category but something that happens between people, Ram Shree says that there existed a long-rooted resentment between both Shambhu Dayal and Lakhan Lal with her father Pannchi. It stemmed back to the times when her father worked their land much before he got his own.

Mucund, who has had numerous conversations with Ram Shree, adds: “There is certainly the possibility of a frame-up. Ram Shree’s family, in fact, had hardly a motive to murder compared to a certain other family. Since the jail is the guardian of all prisoners we have appealed the decision in the Supreme Court.” Nobody, however, disputes either the occurrence or the dastardly nature of the crime itself. Its macabre nature forced the district court to opt for the maximum punishment. Panchhi, the court ruled, didn’t deserve any ‘mercy on the ground of age’. Panchhi’s wife died during the course of the trial. And the court ruled that Ram Shree was the ‘root cause of this occurrence’. Since she had taken equal part in the crime, armed with an axe, she too deserved no mercy.

Interestingly, from the outset, the counsel for the appellants did not seriously challenge the conviction—arguing instead for life imprisonment instead of capital punishment. While Ram Shree herself doesn’t look like having any devious ability to deceive and while she casts doubts on the testimony that led to her conviction, it’s largely been the presence of Pooja that has moved organisations like the National Commission for Women to take up cudgels on her behalf.

But, asks Mathura district magistrate, Sada Kant: “Why this gender bias? You have to take the victims into account. Or are they irrelevant?” Adds CPI general secretary Atul Anjan: “What if a man sentenced to death had a crippled son or some such liability?” Meanwhile, Ram Shree was jailed at Luck-now’s Nari Bandi Griha before being moved to Mathura on March 12 where the state sends women prisoners scheduled for execution. She last met her husband Khoobchand and son Ramchand an year back. Her husband hasn’t the money, nor possibly the inclination, to visit her again. His last words to her: “Jaise karni vaise bharni (you have to reap what you sow).”

The jail premises were being prepared for the hanging which was scheduled on April 6, before the March 20 Supreme Court stay order which halted the grim proceedings. There’s no record of a hanging in the jail since 1960. And of the years earlier local lore is rather vague. Panchhi and Manmo-han meanwhile, await a similar fate in Allahabad’s Naini jail. There’s no organisation showering any sympathy on them.

It’s important to realise that when two opposite factual depositions are expressed with equal intensity, the truth does not necessarily lie exactly half-way in between them. It’s possible for one side to be simply wrong. For the Supreme Court, with whom the matter now rests, the challenge—apart from re-examining the allegations of the accused about Lakhan Lal and Shambhu Dayal—could be to avoid being forced into delivering a diluted sentence, despite all the pressure to go in that direction by feminist organisations and the media for whom justice has of late become material for prime time entertainment. However, as a lawyer says: “Better a diluted sentence than one which goes against our social conscience. There’s one thing we cannot do, and that is codify repentance.”

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